Three Israeli teams going for medals in worldwide genetic engineering competition

The iGEM competition for university students showcases practical projects in synthetic biology that can help humanity.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Three Israeli teams are contending in a worldwide competition for university students that showcases projects that can help humanity via genetic engineering.

Over 350 teams are participating in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation’s “Grand Jamboree” being held Tuesday through Thursday in Paris, France.

The multidisciplinary group from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology has designed a new way to prevent hair loss caused by chemotherapy. In the project, called Angel Roots, the 12 synthetic biology students engineered a lab version of a molecule, Decursin, that appears in nature in the root extract of a rare seasonal flower that grow exclusively in China and Korea.

Decursin is known for having many beneficial properties, including the abilities to suppress inflammation, repress cancer, and prevent apoptosis – or programmed cell death, which includes hair cells. Until now, it has been produced in a low-yielding, polluting and overly expensive process.

The ability to generate Decursin economically in industrial quantities and add it to hair care products such as shampoos and creams could thus be a game-changer in improving the quality of life of cancer patients who often suffer from hair loss due to their treatments.

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Ben Gurion University’s seven-strong group has developed a biosensor called Asensa for rapid and simple monitoring of amino acids among those suffering from a genetic, life-threatening illness called Maple Syrup Urine Disease (due to the odor emitted when the level of acids rises too high).

Diet helps control the illness, but the amino acid level must be constantly checked through blood tests. The team’s simple and accessible device, linked to a smartphone app, aims to measure their levels in a non-invasive way, through other bodily fluids such as urine, sweat or saliva.

Tel Aviv University’s 11 students will be presenting a tool they developed called Triggate, which can help design mRNA molecules through computational models and algorithms. This technology could help in developing novel vaccines and cancer therapies that one day could even be personalized for individual patients.

The prestigious iGEM competition was founded in 2004 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to give students, mainly undergraduates, a chance to experience scientific and applied research in the world of synthetic biology. In 2019, the Technion team won gold for developing an innovative technology for the production of honey without bees using a genetically engineered bacterium.